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Pen and paper must go, says Ofqual head

News | Published in TES Newspaper on 25 February, 2011 | By: William Stewart

Computers must soon replace pen and paper in all exams, the head of the qualifications watchdog has said.

Ofqual’s outgoing chief executive Isabel Nisbet said retaining traditional writing materials would mean GCSEs and A-levels becoming “invalid” for digitally native pupils.

Two major exam boards have given enthusiastic support to her call for reform.

Edexcel managing director Ziggy Liaquat said: “Technology has the potential to transform education by making its delivery more personalised, efficient and effective and more transparent and secure.

“The examination system is yet to fully realise this potential.”

And the AQA board said it was “really encouraged” that Ofqual was “taking the issue so seriously”.

Millions of exam scripts are already scanned in and marked online every year.

But Ms Nisbet is concerned that increasingly “techno savvy” pupils can take only “bits” of a “very small” number of GCSEs and A-levels on computers by.

She said she fears that if school exams do not go online soon then exam preparation “will become a separate thing to learning” for candidates used to working on computers.

“They use IT as their natural medium for identifying and exploring new issues and deepening their knowledge,” she writes in today’s TES.

“Yet we are even now accrediting new GCSEs, due to run for several years, which are still taken largely on paper.

“This cannot go on. Our school exams are running the risk of becoming invalid, as their medium of pen and ink increasingly differs from the way in which youngsters learn.”

Examination Officers’ Association chief executive Andrew Harland said computerisation “would revolutionise the system”.

“The technology just speeds the whole process up, reduces human error and could allow instantaneous responses and grades.”

But he warned it might not suit pupils with special needs and that while exam boards and Government could benefit from reduced costs, schools would need considerable investment.

OCR chief executive Mark Dawe, said even moving elements of GCSEs and A- levels online would “take some time”.

“How do you ensure that there is fairness across every centre in the country?” he said.

“All the networks have got to be robust, every learner has to have access to a computer of the same speed because what if one takes twice as long to recognise typing as another?

“You have got to install security - there are real challenges about general exams being done by IT.”

In 2004, Ms Nisbet’s predecessor said most exams would be computerised by 2010. But Ms Nisbet said it had been an “aspiration without a plan”.

The Department for Education said it did not have a view on the computerisation of exams or want to be drawn into the debate.

‘SHADY PRACTICE’ - Call to root out grade nudgers

Teachers have a “professional duty” to help expose “shady practice” in schools, the exams regulator said.

Isabel Nisbet said they should help uncover those who “crossed the line” of what was acceptable in trying to increase grades.

“Join with us in shaming out of the system shady practice involving the wrong kind of help to nudge students’ grades upwards,” she writes in today’s TES.

“I am fully aware of the tensions and temptations from high-stakes accountability systems. But professionalism means assessing validly and fairly.”

Ms Nisbet gave one example of a school that had helped on English coursework to a point where it “really was telling (pupils) what to put”.


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Comment (19)

  • I must obey technology. Technology is my master.

    Where to begin?

    1. When these pupils enter the real world and someone gives them a pen and paper?

    2. All pupils? All exams?

    3. Is there *any* evidence for this? It sounds like the disjointed ramblings of a loon: "I saw a young person with a computer once. They've all got mobile phones which they stare into constantly therefore all exams must be online." How about examining reality rather than the bizarre contents of your own mind?

    4. What are the economic pressures here? The conspiracy theorist in me detects lobbying from US based online exam companies seeking to maximise the profits of their shareholders regardless of the consequences for education.

    5. 'She said she fears that if school exams do not go online soon then exam preparation “will become a separate thing to learning” for candidates used to working on computers.' Are you kidding?? With league tables *all* learning is exam preparation. Education is a distant memory.

    If this was a Hollywood movie at this point Ken Robinson would ride over the horizon on a white horse and remind us all that schools can be seen as something other than inhuman exam factories processing anaesthetised young people. We'd cheer our hero throw our hats in the air and the shame-faced evil bureaucrat who proposed this institutional abuse would be driven out of town.

    A few years ago this would have been a transparent April Fool, now it's policy.

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    25 February, 2011

    Archie Medes

  • “This cannot go on. Our school exams are running the risk of becoming invalid, as their medium of pen and ink increasingly differs from the way in which youngsters learn.”

    Learning is not about the medium in which one writes! Yes technology has made it easier to edit work but learning comes through the physical action of writing.

    Also how would it work?

    Take an English exam where students need to analyse pieces of writing, A computer would never allow the type of annotations students use.

    This is simply yet another instance where the pressure is being put on the use of technology, technology which creates more problems than it solves!

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    25 February, 2011


  • Surely if all exams are going to rely on computer knowledge then it is going to put less emphasis on teaching children how to write using the good old pen and paper approach. How are these children going to learn to fill in forms using a pen if they never feel the need to learn how to write for themselves.

    There is also a risk that children will become too reliant on computer programmes such as spell checkers, there is also a risk that these children will never truly learn to spell and write, which is a crucial skill for adult life, it is not sufficient to be completely reliant on new technology. Its like provding a class with calculators so they never need to learn how to make simple additions in their head, how will they learn to cope without the use of these aids?

    This also comes at the same time as the primary curriculum, isthinking of eradicating the emphasis on ICT teaching, so how can we ensure every child has a sufficient knowledge of ICT if it is not even a core subject?

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    25 February, 2011


  • I have 20 years experience in software development, so I think it's fair to say that I'm au fait with technology. However, if I have to produce a one-off text, like an exam, I would much prefer to write, because I find it far faster and more flexible.

    Is this no longer the case for most young people? They might be enamored of technology, but can most of them really type faster than they can write. If not, are exam times going to have to be substantially lengthened?

    Hang on! If we don't lengthen them this could be the perfect ploy to water them down [even further].

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    25 February, 2011

    David Getling

  • Oh, just had another thought. Has the Ofqual head ever attempted to type mathematical text, filled with integral signs, fractions, radicals, etc.?

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    25 February, 2011

    David Getling

  • How do all those professional accountancy bodies manage to do online testing ...with all that mathematical text....oh yes they use spreadsheets.

    and the comment that ''learning comes from the physical action of writing'

    What century does that come from?

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    25 February, 2011


  • i

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    25 February, 2011


  • I can see I'm going to have great fun teaching A-Level maths students to type in LaTeX so that they can do their exam at the pace required. Can you imagine trying to use Equation Editor to show all the working required for integration by substitution?

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    25 February, 2011


  • I can see how certain exams could be computerised, such as a modular multiple choice Science exam, but there are plenty of exams that require thought processes that will not be best served by technology as it stands. I'm no Luddite, but even though I use my computer on a daily basis, I still find myself reaching for pen and paper if I want to do something quickly. And that's the key thing. Is it because I'm a slow typist? No. Is it because I'm somewhat technophobic? Not at all. Is it because, and in the current tecnological climate of ipods, pads, electronic books etc I recognise this is hardly the fashionable view, it's somehow quicker, more versatile? Yes. There really is nothing more versatile than a blank page. Do we really want to dilineate our children's thinking? Do we really want a new generation of adults who can only express their thought processes through typing or text talk? Just because we've invented the camera, we haven't stopped painting or enjoying art. Just because we have e-readers, we haven't stopped picking up books and magazines. And just because we can type all our exam answers onto computer screen, does this mean we should defer to technology in the name of some false idea of progress? Let's hope not. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

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    25 February, 2011


  • And what about the poor people whose normal ICT lessons would be disturbed because they've been re-roomed out of ICT suites to let exams take place...unless there's a mysterious pot of "new" money/space for the technology for this to happen.

    We run Applied ICT (Edexcel), Functional Skills, GCSE BACS, IFS (finance), A-level Computing - all of which require ICT for their assessment. It takes a good number of hours planning to organise things like re-roomings etc just for ICT in these slots (some of which allow flexibility). We've run the on-line version of tests for Functional Skills in ICT rather than on paper...more hassle than it is worth and have gone back to paper. This also implies that schools/invigilators are savvy enough to solve problems WHEN they occur (not IF) and prevent students from cheating/getting round filtering systems etc.

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    25 February, 2011


  • I am surprised so many sceptics managed to write down a response to this article. Did you use ink from a flower and papyrus paper, then have it sent down to the Times Higher Education offices via horse messenger for it to be transcribed into this whacky digital text by a citizen who's got nothing better to do than re-type badly forged letters which are not even spell checked?
    FYI, I ran a spell and grammar checker on the points made above and was disappointed to only find these errors:


    Which rendered my first point a little less valid than I had hoped (although I saw some joy in the misspelling of Archimedes). If you like, I can show you the function in my word processor where these can be resolved? Alternatively I can show you a dictionary, on or off line which will do similar things (but slower). I don't want to mark your comments down for this though, but it's nice to see some 'working out'.

    Anyway, there's a funny point to this story which that it’s all happened before, many years ago. In some parts of America there was great resistance to the abolishment of the slate. Paper and a pen just did not do the same as their slates - and to a large extent they were totally right - a slate has yet to be replaced today. However, despite this the slate isn't widely used any more. Why? You get points for guesses.

    As for exams on a computer, I see this as a fruitless discussion because it's inevitable. For whatever reason, cost (it is cheaper), digital inclusion (it will increasingly become demanded) or just because the pen will slowly start fizzing out, much like the slate did.

    This was typed on my ipad.

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    26 February, 2011


  • There is a time and place for everything supposedly. BUT does everyone (even in this 21st century) have equal access to computers and computing skills? Is this really a well thought out and planned proposition , or just another experiment ? Perhaps the gurus of this "revolutionary change" will seek solutions via Google, etc. and let us know accordingly.

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    26 February, 2011


  • Power cuts on exam day anybody? We have a system where one current phase often goes down due to problems on a new estate!

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    28 February, 2011


  • Has anyone really looked at the information being accessed by these 'digital natives'. Rather than spending their time accessing vital, educationally viable information the majority are playing games, abusing each other on facebook and/or msn or sending texts like"this lssn is s***" (my asterisks) to each other.

    I am also concerned that we seem to feel that children (sorry young persons - how unPC of me!) know how and what to learn. .I would ask people to remember what they were really like when they were young (take the rose tinted glasses off!). I for one argued with my parents even when I knew I was in the wrong, only did what I was made to do, did not see the value in watching the 'black and white' (horror of horrors) version of 'Great Expectations', did not understand why algebra was useful, what log tables were for, why we had to do french... or practice my guitar for that matter.......I could go on!!!!

    But you know what....I GREW will our children....and they will not thank us for our obsession with easy access and easy achievement....some (if not all) difficult skills are worth having because you have to work at them.

    I personally think that running 100m in under 10 seconds is a fantastic achievement....I probably wouldn't if they said it was 'old fashioned' and the olympic qualifying time was to be made 2 minutes because fast is now an outdated skill no longer relevant in the 'real world'......or if you can do 100m in under 10secs on the Wii you can go to the olympics

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    1 March, 2011


  • scilady, you just gave me a horrific thought. Never mind power cuts, what about the "blue screen of death". The computer goes wrong and the candidate loses all his work.
    Could generate some interesting work for the lawyers.

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    1 March, 2011

    David Getling

  • Agree with all those against.
    1. Bad for students' health (think eyes/ head/ posture) bad for examiners' and teachers' health (imagine marking 35 on- screen English essays!).
    2. Potential for cheating increases. Paid the right sum the unscrupulous can easily 'edit' papers to the desired standard- much harder to forge handwriting.
    3. Favours the 'haves' once again. Not all children have access to computers :(

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    2 March, 2011


  • ... besides where is the 'individual' will be lost in standard font use.

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    2 March, 2011


  • Imagine marking 35 on screen essays? I do - GCSE English will be fully marked online from this summer - but the students will still handwrite their scripts.

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    2 March, 2011


  • I work in a school which is making staff redundant because it doesn't have any money. The Science department hasn't been able to buy any resources for the last three years. We'e having to cancel practical activities left, right and centre because of the lack of resources. You can't photocopy anything without signed permission from the Head of Faculty.

    As we all know, the provision of a reliable, functional computer system costs more than it would if it were made of gold. Overpriced hardware, exorbitantly overpriced software and ludicrous salaries for the glorified used car salesmen who decide what you are and aren't allowed to do with the computers for which you paid so much.

    All of a sudden, some airhead from Ofqual suggests that all students should be doing exams on computers. In the words of Tom Cruise: "Show me the money." If you show me the money I can suggest 1 million things that would be of greater educational benefit than MORE COMPUTERS.

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    3 March, 2011


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